March 7, 2013 | Volume 43, No. 9

SEABA guide dies, 2 injured on cornice

A 34-year-old guide was killed and two clients were injured in a March 3 backcountry heli-skiing accident near Haines.  

Christian Arcadio Cabanilla, a guide for Haines-based Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), died Sunday after an accident in the upper Kicking Horse drainage on a ridge near Garrison Glacier, said state trooper spokesperson Megan Peters.

The two injured skiers were transported to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau with non-life threatening injuries. One was sent on to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

A helicopter dropped the five-person party – consisting of Cabanilla, a SEABA guide, and three clients – on the ridge at about 5,800 feet, then took off and remained nearby. As the skiers traveled along a ridgeline toward a descent point, they heard a loud “whomp” sound and snow collapsed under them, Peters said.

Everyone but the guide fell down the ridge an estimated 600 to 1,000 feet, Peters said. She added the guide “narrowly escaped falling down the mountain as well.”

Cabanilla was found unconscious and taken to the Haines airport. Fire and ambulance crews responded and transported Cabanilla to the Haines clinic, where he was pronounced dead.

Police dispatch received the emergency call at about 12:43 p.m.; troopers were notified at about 1:13 p.m.

A press release sent by SEABA co-owner Nick Trimble said the accident “appears to have been caused by a massive cornice failure.” A cornice is an overhanging edge of snow on a ridge or crest of a mountain.

SEABA was able to affect its own rescue, as the helicopter was still nearby, Peters said. Trooper Sgt. Timothy Birt said in an interview Monday another ski group was also in the area and responded.

Peters said the group was on a guided trip and Cabanilla had guided for SEABA in the past, but he was not acting in a guiding capacity at the time of the accident.

Birt said he would not release any names besides Cabanilla’s because the other four skiers didn’t die and weren’t arrested. Peters added, “We are not releasing the other names of those involved because we did not perform the rescue and those involved are witnesses in our death investigation (and troopers do not release the names of witnesses).”

That’s an apparent change from a fatal heli-skiing accident last March, when troopers released names, ages and hometowns of skiers involved in the incident.

An autopsy will be conducted by the medical examiner, Birt said. Whether a drug test will be included will be the examiner’s decision, the trooper said.

Cabanilla’s body was flown out of Haines Monday evening.

Birt traveled to Haines from Juneau Monday to conduct the death investigation. He spent Monday conducting interviews and flying over the accident areas.

When asked about the safety gear Cabanilla and other skiers were wearing, GPS coordinates of the accident, and several other questions, Peters said: “A lot of those questions don’t have anything to do with what troopers look at.”

“Those are more along the lines of civil issues that we don’t play a part in. Our actual involvement was very limited and we essentially look to make sure there isn’t a criminal annex related to a death,” Peters said.

The investigation is ongoing, Peters said, and it has not yet been determined whether criminal activity was involved. “If something in our investigation reveals that criminal charges are warranted against an individual, we will take appropriate action. All death investigations have a potential to have a criminal annex, which is why we investigate.”

Haines Avalanche Information Center (HAIC) founder Erik Stevens said the last information he had posted to the HAIC website at the time of the accident was for Feb. 28, which ranked avalanche danger as “considerable.” However, that information expired Feb. 28, and he didn’t have enough information about conditions to make another forecast until Monday, March 4, when he ranked the danger as “moderate.”

Stevens, who was out skiing up at Chilkat Pass south of the Three Guardsmen peak Sunday, said his group “triggered a large cornice collapse which triggered a big slide” around 3 p.m.

As part of his March 4 forecast, which he posted to the website Sunday evening, Stevens warned about cornices being a “major concern” in the mountains. “They have grown quite large and the strong sunshine is weakening them. Stay out from underneath overhanging cornices right now, and stay way back from them on ridgelines and summits. Cornices often break much farther back than you would expect,” he wrote.

Assistant to the borough manager Darsie Culbeck said he and clerk Julie Cozzi had been looking through SEABA’s operations plans to ensure they followed protocol with regard to the borough. “At this point I don’t see that the borough has an immediate responsibility,” Culbeck said.

According to SEABA’s operations plan, “An accident report will be completed as soon as possible by the guide. One copy will go with the victim, another to SEABA base, insurance carrier, and one to the State of Alaska, Division of Land Mining and Water.”

Cozzi said SEABA, according to borough code and SEABA’s own operations plan, is not required to submit an accident report to the borough.

According to his biography on SEABA’s website, Cabanilla had more than a decade of experience in the Alaska heli-ski industry and had worked as a backcountry snowboard guide in Chilean Patagonia and Antarctica. He was a commercial helicopter pilot and had flown for glacier sightseeing tours, heli-skiing trips, fire-fighting flights, and mineral exploration expeditions.

Cabanilla received advanced avalanche and crevasse rescue training, as well as wilderness first responder training, according to SEABA’s website.  

While troopers and the SEABA website indicate Cabanilla’s hometown as Haines, his Facebook page lists his hometown as Three Rivers, Calif.